Mere weeks before the 2012-13 A-League season kicked off, the newly-formed Wanderers had no training ground and were struggling to sign a full squad.
As it happened, coach Tony Popovic unearthed a few gems, who led the way to an inaugural-season Premiers Plate, two consecutive grand final appearances and an historic Asian Champions League title.
Yet the make-up of the team still dictated how they would play – and though defensive, counter-attacking football proved successful, it wasn’t Popovic’s favoured style.
“Any coach will coach to the conditions and with the resources available to them,” Wanderers CEO John Tsatsimas said.
“A good coach can do that, and Tony is the best there is.
“He needed to be competitive in the first season or two, but as a coach he wanted a certain style and a certain way of playing that reflected where he wanted to be.”
Popovic had a plan.
It was just a matter of finding the right time to implement it.
The cogs starting turning during last season’s ghastly domestic campaign, and by the time the Wanderers had narrowly avoided the wooden spoon, a radical transformation was already underway.
Eighteen players departed, in perhaps the biggest overhaul the A-League has seen.
In their place arrived a meticulously selected cohort recruited especially to play a possession-based game.
Key contributors to the philosophy’s success have been Spanish trio Alberto, Dimas and Andreu, the latter a product of Barcelona’s famed La Masia youth academy, where Tsatsimas found another important piece of the puzzle.
Tsatsimas met former long-time Barcelona youth coach Andres Carrasco during a whirlwind tour of big European clubs including Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Arsenal and Ajax.
Carrasco was coaxed to Western Sydney as assistant coach alongside Hayden Foxe, and has helped Popovic convert the side into one of the competition’s top entertainers.
“The change in Tony’s coaching this year has been seamless,” Tsatsimas said.
“He’s very shrewd, a very good tactician, and able to adjust to various styles of play.”
There were critics.
Having previously endured accusations of playing a one-dimensional game, Tsatsimas believes the abandonment of Popovic’s proven method made the Wanderers prime targets for negative press throughout the off-season and a winless first three matches.
“It was certainly extreme in terms of how people saw it,” he said.
“But we believed in that decision, and it’s come to pass that it’s been the right way forward.”
That the Wanderers are readying for a third grand final in four years is vindication – even if the club never sought it.
“Tony has progressed the evolution of the team at the rate that’s appropriate,” Tsatsimas said.
And as the seasons roll on and the club matures, it will only continue.
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